When books are touchstones. When they are armor and shield. When they are lantern and map. When they are loved to bits, and read to smithereens.

I was twelve years old when I first read A Wrinkle in Time. It was the first time I had read a book where I didn’t just identify with the main character – I was in utter sympatico with her. Everything that Meg Murry felt, I felt. Her loneliness. Her frustration. Her poor social skills. Her emotional immaturity. Her awkwardness. Her separateness from her peers. Her love for her family. Her anger. Her confusion. Her sorrow. The things she said, I could have said. The weird things she did, I could have done (and likely had done). I had never before seen my own struggles in black and white – in the surety of paper and ink. The fact of that book in my hands thrilled me to the core.

I didn’t like the cover, so I tore it off. It was a library book, but I had no intention of returning it. I slid it in between the mattress and box spring of my bed, and read it and re-read it a thousand times. I wonder where it is now. Some nights, I wake up and I am sure I am gnawing on book binding glue. The paper disintegrated long ago – and I am sure I have breathed cloud after cloud of story dust as I sat in the loneliness of that room. The ink seeped into my skin. Those words are written on my bones.

I think I still owe that fine. Don’t tell the library.

I bring it up because, according to the good folks at MPR, it is a Young Adult novel. Except that it’s not YA at all. It’s a Middle Grade novel – and a damn good one. There is a difference, of course, between Young Adult and Middle Grade. I wrote about it, of course, here, and here. It’s been written about on approximately nine million other sites, most notably here and here and here. As expected, the good folks at MPR didn’t care to trouble themselves to learn the difference, and, as expected, it was a Middle Grade novel that won the “Best YA Book of All Time” poll on Minnesota Public Radio, and, as expected, a bunch of children’s authors seethed and ground their teeth that the good ladies of the Daily Circuit couldn’t be bothered to get their terms right – and what’s worse, were incredibly dismissive of those who tried to educate them on what the terms mean and why they matter.

Pete Hautman sums up the situation nicely here and here. Now you can click on the MPR link above, and read through the comments that a bunch of published authors, seasoned librarians, booksellers, and scholars of children’s literature left (myself included) about why it’s so important to get these terms right – if, for no other reason, we can stop all the hand-wringing from parents who don’t understand that if you hand your eight-year-old YA books that explicitly wrestle with the teen experience, said child will be wading through material and life-experiences that are inappropriate to their own experience. A Middle Grade book is a FAR more appropriate choice for that child. The distinctions matter not just for discussion and evaluation, but for purchasing too.

And it’s frustrating to those of us who actually care about books. Who love books. And who are passionate advocates for the role the beloved book in the life of a child.

And THAT’s what I actually wanted to talk about. Beloved books. Important books. The books that matter.

One of the things that I love about my colleagues in Children’s Literature (the writers, the librarians, the teachers, the scholars) is that – to a one – they are all book evangelists in their souls. Each one came to children’s literature because of a central truth that governs their lives. That books matter. That children’s books matter. And that every child deserves the chance to be moved by a book. To be guided by a book. To have a book change their world-view, change their thinking, change their trajectory, change their life.

And, of course, it’s not the book that does this, in the end. It’s the child holding the book who builds the world. And that’s exciting to me.

This time of year, the book world becomes awash with lists. Best-of lists. Newbery contender lists. Folks in the media love the horse-race narrative. They love stories of who’s up and who’s down. They love shadowy contenders. They love statistics. But the problem is that it goes counter to what we all know about books. We do not read for best, and we do not read to give awards, and we do not read to quantify the experience. Our experience with books is a relationship. It grows with us, changes as we change. It is responsive to our evolving understanding, our deepening experience, our complicated lives.

This is because, in the end, a book is a living thing. It insinuates itself into the mind and the heart. It replicates itself in dream and imagination and play. It loves. It worries. It wonders. I have been living with books for a long time, and I understand and believe and will repeat every day until the day I die the one thing that I absolutely know to be true: Books have souls. And so do we.

There have been books, like A Wrinkle in Time, that have taken residence in my life. That have integrated themselves into the landscape of my imagination and written themselves onto my heart. The inform my life as a writer, as a daughter, as a mom and as a wife. They inform my life as a politically aware person, as a good neighbor, as an educator. They protect me when I am sad. They spur me on to fight the good fight. They whisper the truth of my love to the sky. And they stay with me for months, years, decades. My whole life.

For example:

I have no idea how old I was when I read The Silver Chair. My mother had read the entire series to us when we were little, and because I was an averse reader, and frankly a poor reader, the Narnia books were ones that I could pick up and pretend to read with a good amount of authority since I already knew what happened. The truth, man. It’s rough.

But The Silver Chair. It is my favorite of all of them. It is when we learn that Narnia, despite the defeat of the Telmarines, still has its dark places. It’s scary places. There are man-eating giants and soul-sucking swamps and a terrible witch and a scary underworld. But most of all, the two main characters escape to Narnia after fleeing a pack of bullies. This one moment was a talisman for me. That I too might escape. That there might be something beyond the days of soul-crushing humiliation that was my experience in grade school.

That book, in its soul, was me. And it gave me so much hope.

And:

I think I read that book a thousand times. And then I read it to my kids. And then I read it to myself again. What I loved most about it – apart from the adventure and friendship and humor and thrills and whatever – was the fact that the rabbits, in their souls, were storytellers. That their stories had meaning and message. That their stories guided them and fed them and kept them together. That notion plucked at my own inner harmonics – because I was moved by story too. And I self-referred to stories all the time. And I knew that a story could make sense out of senseless situation, and could offer hope and meaning when it seemed that both were lost forever. I knew that a story could light the dark paths, and lead us home.

Also: Fiver. Because come on.

And:

The Outsiders was really my first experience with any kind of transgressive fiction. I had never read a book where kids drank alcohol or said bad words or smoked or fought or whatever. I read it in eighth grade. We had to read Rumble Fish for school – another book that I loved, but I didn’t understand Rumble Fish in its subtlety until much much later. The Outsiders, however, punched me in my guts. It was the first time that I felt exasperated and tender towards characters in my reading. It was the first time that I saw their transgressions as necessary. It was the first time that I really got it that the world can be violent sometimes. And cruel. And unfair. And yet. How the world still has beauty, and friendship, and desperate love. And that poetry matters – as does art. And that we all have the power – even as we take our last breath – to transform.

I am going to do more writing on this subject. On the books that matter, the books we carry, the books that remain in the satchels of our souls  - tools, maps, weapons, comfort, inspiration, joy. Whatever.

In the meantime, what are your talisman books, your guiding books, your treasured books. What books do you carry in your heart? What books are written on your bones?

In which the words transfix, translate, transmogrify, transform.

Today, while doing All The Things that writers are warned away from (“Do not go unto the Goodreads,” the prophets said, “and yea, resist the sin of the self-google, as it is a vile thing, and an abomination. And for crying out loud, do not seek thy name in the din of the Twitter of Babel. For that way leads to darkness.”)…

I did all of those things. All of that and more. And bless me Father, and so forth, but I’m not even sorry about it. (I still may do my ninety-seven Hail Marys, though. Just in case.)

Anyway, on Twitter, I found this:

bosnian tweetThe text is a bit blurry, but it says: “Priče su beskonačne. Beskonačne su koliko i riječi.” It is a sentence in Bosnian. It means, “Stories are infinite. They are as infinite as worlds,” which is a sentence in Barnhill.

This, obviously, is not the first time that I’ve seen my writing translated. Heck, the Swedes translated a whole book, and the Brazilians are doing the same thing, to be released sometime in the near future. And it’s certainly not the first time I’ve seen myself quoted on Twitter, either. That also happens a lot. And it’s interesting to me, just seeing what sentences leap out for people, what phrases they catch in their hands, shove in their pockets, and carry away. Sometimes it’s quotes from one of the books, and sometimes it’s quotes from the stories, and sometimes it’s quotes from this blog.

And it’s never the quotes I think that will matter. That’s the beauty of it. We write words and words and words down and we hand them to the world. Here, we say. Words from my mind and words from my hands and words from my mouth and words from my body. Take them. Take what you want and leave the rest behind. And make of them what you will.

Here’s the other beauty of it: everything we read, we read in translation.

It’s like this: The writer reaches into the swamp of their experience, of their imagination and worry and wonder, and pulls out word after word after struggling word. They are slippery fish. They are ornery amphibians. They are fighting butterflies. They are living and struggling and raging and alive. And we pierce them through the throat and pin them on the page and know it is only an approximation of what we had in our heads. The story in our head is alive. The story on the page is not. And finishing a book is a kind of grieving.

But! The reader! The reader gathers our pierced fish and our impaled butterflies into her arms. The reader presses each word to her chest. She teaches them to breathe. She returns them to her own swamp. And they wriggle and flutter and swim and live. And they adapt to their new surroundings. They follow new patterns. They feed on new species and change color and texture and heft. They are transformed.

The book you read is different than the book I write. The book I write is an approximation. The book you read is an approximation. Both are only mostly true.

And it’s easy to forget this. The other day, a little girl sent me a scanned picture of a drawing that she did of Iron Hearted Violet. And it was a picture of the end, with Violet and Demetrius in a new world, walking toward a new life, and the dragon is hiding in the trees watching them.

“I don’t believe the dragon actually died,” she said. “I think the dragon is following them and will tell them that he is alive in two days.”

This is her translation. It is mostly true. And it is just as true as my own approximation of the story. I write the words, I give her the words, and the words transform. But the story?   Well. That is something else entirely.

I don’t know if any of the words on this post make any sense to you, or if they are useful to you, or if they matter at all. All I know is that I offer them to you – fully and completely. All I know is that you will gather them up, breathe upon them, and make them live. All I know is that the act of reading is not only an act of faith, but it is a kind of resurrection as well. And it is good.

Here. Take these. Make of them what you will.

Tonight! At Nokomis Library!

(this is not me. this is Flannery O’Connor as a little child – and even as a little child, she was way cooler than I could ever be.)

I’m giving a reading tonight (Tuesday! May 21!) at 6:30. I’ll read a little from JACK, a little from VIOLET, and a little from the new book, THE WITCH’S BOY. I also will be answering questions and going off on tangents and engaging in total non sequiturs and maybe cracking jokes. It’ll be awesome. There will be books for sale, AND a drawing for my last two ARCs of Iron Hearted Violet.

And we may even talk a little about some butt-kicking princesses in history.

Like this one:

(princess Alice of the UK. Feminist. Philosopher. Ran the field hospitals during the Franco-Prussian war. And generally rules.)

Or maybe this one:

(Joanna of Flanders. Part princess. Part Freedom Fighter.)

And it’ll be fun.

AND YOU SHOULD TOTALLY COME!

LEO’S MOM!

Yesterday, I had to take The Boy ™ to the eye doctor to check on some tracking issues that were making reading a struggle. The good news is that he doesn’t need glasses nor does he need any kind of therapy. The bad news is that the reason why he gets so physically exhausted when he reads is that his whole body is working to keep his eyes in alignment.

“Since he’s able to keep his eyes pointing parallel on his own,” the doctor said, “then he is doing exactly what he needs to be doing to train his muscles. Give him lots of praise when he reads, make sure he knows that he’s tired because his body has to work extra hard, but with daily practice he’ll get stronger and stronger, and opt for bigger type and books with pictures for now, and don’t be in such a hurry to put the kid in chapter books. Let him be a kid. With kids books.”

Then he paused and thought about that for a moment.

“Have you noticed,” he continued, “that there are some AMAZING children’s books out lately?”

Why yes, I said, a faint smile on my mouth. I may have noticed a thing or two about it. And I may know a few of the folks making those amazing stories, but that’s another post.

Anyway, Leo, after a long day of eye tests and exercises, performed admirably and with distinction. I was honestly bracing myself all day for the moment that he crawled into the duct work, or reduced a hundred-grand-pricetag bit of equipment to smithereens. Or called the therapist lady a poop-head. Or whatever. But no. He was a perfect gentleman – conversational, gentle, serious, with a couple well-placed jokes that were actually funny. It was as though someone took my child and replaced him with somebody else’s perfect child.

Anyway, we headed back to school in the middle of the day. I parked the car, took his hand and walked across the parking lot. A classroom window pushed open and a kid’s head popped out.

“LEO’S MOM!” the kid yelled.

“Yes?” I called back.

“ARE YOU BRINGING LEO BACK TO SCHOOL?”

I looked down at Leo, who shrugged back at me. “Well,” I called back. “That’s what it looks like.”

I could hear a teacher’s voice in the background saying step away from that window at once young man. But the kid persisted.

“LEO’S MOM LEO’S MOM! WHERE DID YOU TAKE HIM?”

And before I could say to the doctor the kid yells “LEO’S MOM ARE YOU GOING TO VISIT OUR CLASS.” And then two hands grabbed the kid’s shoulders and pulled him out of sight.

We went into the building and a group of first graders were walking down the stairs.

“LEO’S MOM!”

“HI LEO’S MOM!”

“LEO’S MOM, DID YOU SEE MY SHOES?”

“LEO’S MOM I HAD A CUPCAKE! LAST WEEK!”

I smiled at them and continued to the office. There was a kid sitting on a chair with a huge bandage on his knee.

“LEO’S MOM, I SKINNED MY KNEE.”

Another kid was leaving with her mom.

“LEO’S MOM NEXT WEEK IS MY BIRTHDAY.”

I signed Leo in and walked down the hall to his class. I saw a kid with a bathroom pass – one of my first graders on my Lego League team.

“HI LEGO LADY!” The kid said, running over and giving me a hug. “I MEAN LEO’S MOM!”

And a realized a few things.

1. My son has made me famous.

2. My son, being the loudest human in the world, has trained the kids in his school to be just as loud as he is.

3. The rest of the school, assuming that I must be quite deaf at this point, feel the need to shout at me to make sure I can hear them.

4. Because my son is fun, they assume that I am fun as well.

This last one, alas, is a fallacy. Just ask my kids. I am not fun at all. I am the enemy of fun. This was told to me last night – at bedtime – with great enthusiasm, with gusto and relish. “Mom,” my kids informed me. “You are the fun-killer.”

Still, to these kids at school, I bear the fun of my son on my forehead like a seal. I am the Fun-Bringer. I am LEO’S MOM.

(so there)

Things coming, things doing, and things done.

So, I have a confession to make: I have a ridiculously humungous amount of fun doing bookish events. Maybe I would feel differently if I wrote for grownups and was therefore speaking in front of audiences comprised largely of grownups. Cuz, yanno. Grownups are stodgy and a bit of a snore.

Now, I don’t want to offend any grownups reading this blog, and I really want you to know that individually I think you’re marvelous and I love you all very much. But. Let’s be serious. Kids are more fun.

I hope I haven’t hurt your feelings.

(Kids, if you’re reading this, please remember that grownups – while insufferably tiresome when collected in groups – are a sensitive, fragile lot, and you should always try to boost up their self-esteem. For example: You can tell them that they just said something smart. Or that they look terribly attractive in that sweater.)

Is there anything more awesome, I wonder, than sitting around with a bunch of kids and talking about stories? Honestly, I don’t think there is.

So, I’ve been doing some more bookish-type events lately, and I’m going to be doing some more.

For example, back in September, I was reading at Wild Rumpus Books, surrounded not only by a bunch of kids, but animals too! 

Kids!

Animals!

It was magnificent!

And then, just last Saturday I was at Red Balloon Bookshop. And there was cake. CAKE!

One of the perks of being trained as a teacher is that I’m pretty good at getting the kids to think of – and then actually ask- questions after my brief reading.

And their questions are always really interesting and esoteric and random and wonderful. Such as, “Thank you for reading but what are those books about?” And, “But why did you stop there? What happens next?” And, “But seriously, did you write all the words in this book all by yourself?”

That last one was asked with some incredulity.

By my own nephew, by the way. (Honestly! The respect I get around here!) (Et tu, Charlie?)

Anyway, I feel exquisitely energized by these last two readings, and I’m looking forward to the next appearances. For those of you who are interested I’ll be at the Twin Cities Book Festival this Saturday for a reading, signing and teaching two writing mini-workshops for children. Later, I’ll be at the AASL conference in Saint Paul at the end of the month, signing books. Then, on November 13, I’ll be doing a reading with Minnesota writer, extraordinaire, Anne Ursu, at the Second Story Reading Series at the Loft. And then, on December 3, I’ll be speaking at Nokomis Library, doing a reading and author chat with their youth book group, and I’m ridiculously excited about all of it.

If you’re around, come by! Say hello! Throw tomatoes! Or flower petals! Or autumn leaves! Make fun! Tell jokes! Stick around for coffee! Or whatever.

In any case, I’ll be there. Having the time of my life.

On Chatting

http://kellybarnhill.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/ladies-chatting-over-fence.jpg?w=300

Once, a long time ago, I was fired from a job for excessive chatting.

This comes as no surprise to my children, who have been convinced for some time that my propensity towards chat is simply one element of my insidious plan to murder them from sheer embarrassment. If chatting could be weaponized, I’d be the most powerful woman in the world.

The fact, though, that I could be fired for chatting seemed, at the time, to be a bit rich, given that I was a waitress, and the people I was chatting with were my customers. Still. I do enjoy gabbing from time to time, and if it takes me an hour just to get to the end of my block because there are neighbors to chat with between my house and the corner, well so be it. I’d rather be chatty than the neighborhood grump.

http://kellybarnhill.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/vtgladieschatting.jpg?w=300

And I bring this up because last week I was lucky enough to attend the annual meeting for the American Library Association. Now, I have always loved librarians – school librarians in particular. I think anyone who has ever worked in a school holds a deep and abiding love for school librarians. But recently, as the parent of voracious readers, I hold a respect for my neighborhood librarians that deepens by the day. My eleven year old, for example, reads at least a book a day, and relies on the librarian to help her navigate her next choices. (In fact, we’re heading over there shortly). Librarians have, in my family, had a deep and measurable impact, and I appreciated being able to tell them so.

I met librarians from Michigan, from Minnesota and Alabama and California and Florida. I met librarians from Alaska and Maine and Texas. I met librarians from everywhere. And they had books in their brains and books in their skin and books in their mouths and books under their fingernails and books hanging onto their skirts and belts like naughty children. Books fell onto the ground when they coughed and shot out of their eyes when they laughed and fluttered out of their hair like masses of butterflies.

They were magical, these librarians. But really, are you surprised? I wasn’t.

And while it was fun reading to them from my book and talking to them about my book, it was way MORE fun listening to them talk about their jobs – both the good stuff and the bad stuff – because I’ll tell you what, librarians are wicked passionate about what they do. And god bless them for it.

The point is this: I ended up in a gigantic building filled to the rafters with book lovers – the guardians of books, the catalogers of books, the organizers of books, the sellers of books, the writers of books and the producers of books. All under one roof.

And oh! The chatting!

I chatted about the relationships we have with books, about the constructivist principle in reading. I chatted about the lack of non-white characters in children’s graphic fiction and the power of a single collectively read novel to change the culture of a classroom. I chatted about kids, about career choices, about food, about airlines, about sensible shoes, about variations in language, about wildfires, about e-piracy, about breastfeeding, about college, about the strange twists in a single life, about the people who altered our paths, about janitors, about Odd Jobs, about novel construction, about God, about laundry soap, about castle construction and cathedral design, about comic books, and about my beautiful beautiful city.

It was glorious.

Additionally, I was also able to do a reading at a breakfast in front of a bunch of librarians, along with the the incomparable Grace Lin and Andrea Davis. Here is a picture of the three of us. I am the gigantic woman in the middle.

http://kellybarnhill.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/img_9935.jpg?w=475&h=356

(I mean, I’ve always known that I was tall, but holy smokes, that picture makes me look like I could destroy entire cities. I kinda like it.)

My job now requires an abundance of silence. I plan in silence, I take notes in silence, I scribble in silence, I brood in silence, I draft in silence and I worry in silence. The only time when I’m speaking is during the revision process, when I read my book out loud over and over and over again until the neighborhood is convinced that I’m utterly insane (they’re not wrong) and I’ve gone hoarse, but that’s a different kind of talking. That’s talking to myself. There’s no connection, no revelation, no learning. I love chatting because it affords me the opportunity to connect to another person’s experience, and, in that moment, to truly and openly love them. Because listening is an act of love, you know?

In New Orleans, the weekend before last, I had the opportunity to chat, to listen, to connect, and ultimately to love approximately 400 people.

And it was awesome.